Dormant for 2,000 Years, an Ancient Seed Sprouts

Alex Chadwick talks with Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday, about a 2,000-year-old date seed that has recently begun to sprout in the Middle East. Israeli scientists excavated the seeds from an ancient storeroom found during an archeological dig.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

A tree grows in Kibbutz Ketura in the Israeli desert, and what a tree it is, a tiny sapling actually 2,000 years old, or the seed that it comes from is 2,000 years old, making it the oldest seed ever germinated. Botanists never gave it much chance, but now it is really growing and they're hoping to learn a lot about the culture and medicines of ancient Israel. Here with more is Ira Flatow, host of NPR's "Science Friday," regular Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Ira, tell us about this plant and the story around it.

IRA FLATOW (Host, "Science Friday"): Yeah, it's a very interesting story. And what I like about this story is that it has a lot of different levels to it. First, of course, it's the story every gardener can relate to, getting a seed to grow, and especially one which is about 2,000 years old. And the botanist who has succeeded in getting this seed to grow, Dr. Elaine Solowey, says that, you know, the problem is not getting old seeds to germinate--we do that a lot of times--but it's getting it to grow and thrive after that, because usually they use up so much energy just sprouting that they don't grow well.

CHADWICK: Yeah.

FLATOW: And when she was asked to plant the seed, make it grow, she sort of laughed a little bit and said, `Well, I'll give it a shot, but I don't hold out much hope.'

CHADWICK: So...

FLATOW: And then you have the story on another level, like the history of the seed that surrounds it, and that's quite interesting. These seeds are date palm seeds which were unearthed by an archaeologist at King Herod's palace at Masada. And think about it: Sometime 2,000 years ago someone was eating the dates, they spit out the seeds and there they sat in that ruin for two millennia.

CHADWICK: Well, it is growing, though. I mean, there it is.

FLATOW: Yeah. The seed was planted in January. It's now about a foot tall. So far it is thriving, which, of course, is another story about the land and the culture of its time, because this tree is virtually extinct from Judea, but it used to grow in the lush palm tree forest covering the entire sides of the hills from the Galilee to the Dead Sea. But Sarah Sallon, whose idea it was to grow the ancient seeds, found a bunch of these lying in a drawer, having been dug up 30 years ago in the 1970s. And she being a specialist in medicinal plants and director of the Louis Borick Natural Medicine Research Center in Jerusalem, she took a special interest in these seeds because she knows that 2,000 years ago, the dates were widely known for their medicinal properties, which, of course, now she studies medicinal property of plants all over the Middle East and she would like to study these and possibly extract modern medicines from them.

CHADWICK: Well, the question is: Are you ever going to get dates, actual dates out of this sapling tree?

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, that is the $64 question because only female date palms bear fruit and you have to wait for them to bear the fruit, and that could be 30 years from now because that's the history of a date palm; it takes that long to bear fruit.

CHADWICK: Hey, the story's already 2,000 years old. What's another 30 years? Come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Hey, between friends, of course not. But it's interesting. They may not have to wait all that time to learn more about the plant, because the date palm, the seeds and even the leaves--they've snipped off a leaf to look at the genes already, to do gene analysis--the genes can carry a lot of information. Think about it. This plant survived without the benefit of modern agricultural techniques through eons of on-again, off-again droughts and diseases. It must have been one tough little tree, or big tree, when it grew up. And if you look at the genes of this plant, they may tell you why that happened and how that happened and maybe the genes may offer other clues to the date's reported medicinal powers.

CHADWICK: Ira Flatow, host of NPR's "Science Friday," and fruitful Thursday contributor to DAY TO DAY.

Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome, Alex.

CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY returns in just a moment. I'm Alex Chadwick.

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